January 28, 2013 9:34 am

Clarke faced huge suburban challenge

Michael Clarke joined Premier Foods in September 2011, taking up the reins as problems at the debt-saddled company grew.

His arrival and candid approach won him support in the investment community. After more than a decade at Coca-Cola and several years running the European operations of Kraft, the US foods group, Mr Clarke landed in at the deep end – immediately plunging into talks with Premier Foods’ legions of lenders, with whom he negotiated new terms.

He also engaged in a heavy programme of asset disposals, including Sarson’s vinegar and Hartley’s jams, again as part of efforts to pay down debt. His strategy involved selling off non-core businesses and concentrating on big brands including Mr Kipling cakes and Ambrosia rice.

However, the scale of the task was huge and some challenges lay beyond his control, including the relentless UK rains that forced a U-turn on using 100 per cent British wheat in the loaves.

Bread itself was posing big problems as input costs rose and Mr Clarke was unable to introduce significant streamlining of logistics.

While Mr Clarke did much to improve the situation at the ailing food producer – once the UK’s biggest, formed from an ill-judged and debt-fuelled acquisition spree in the mid 2000s – frustrations remained and his record is not without controversy.

Most recently the company lost the £75m bread contract to serve the Co-op, dismissed by Mr Clarke as low margin business, and he presided over the loss of nearly 1,000 jobs, some of which are still under consultation.

The focus will now be on just what frustration pushed Mr Clarke to the exit. He gave up a high-flying career at Kraft, where he is understood to have been in line to run one of the divisions after it split itself in two, and took up a role at what was then described by analysts as a complete basket case in English suburbia.

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